Acid Reflux During Chemotherapy

How cancer treatment can trigger reflux and what you can do about it

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid or bile flows up from the stomach into the esophagus, resulting in irritation. This is a common digestive condition, but your risk of it goes up if you are receiving or have completed chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy drugs are strong, and your gastrointestinal tract is not spared from related side effects. Acid reflux is one of these side effects, and symptoms can include indigestion and heartburn.

These symptoms can flare after meals, during normal activity, or at night when you're to get much-needed rest. Though avoiding all side effects of chemotherapy is not possible, acid reflux is one that you can work to manage.

Read on to find out more about why this occurs, ways to treat it, and lifestyle changes that you can do to help manage symptoms and reduce acid reflux.

A woman undergoing chemotherapy
AMELIE-BENOIST / BSIP / Corbis / Getty Images

How Chemotherapy Increases Reflux

Acid reflux is common during and after chemotherapy, and this has to do with how chemotherapy drugs work.

Chemotherapy drugs target rapidly dividing cells. The problem is that they cannot distinguish between normal, rapidly dividing cells and cancer cells, so the drugs attack them all.

When follicle cells are affected, hair loss occurs. Suppressed bone marrow leads to blood disorders. Similarly, when cells in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract are damaged, corrosive stomach acid can flow into your esophagus instead of being carefully contained.

When such acid reflux episodes occur, chest pain and a burning feeling are common. Other possible symptoms include:

  • Sore throat or lump in the throat
  • Coughing
  • Sour or bitter taste in the mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Asthma-like symptoms

Causes and Risk Factors

It is commonly thought that acid reflux, in general, is caused by an abundance of stomach acid, but that is not always the case.

Contrary to popular belief, acid reflux is often a result of not having enough stomach acid and/or digestive enzymes to efficiently break down a meal. Certain foods, beverages, and over-eating can contribute to the problem.

Additional risk factors include:

  • Living with obesity
  • Being pregnant
  • Pain and fever medicines such as Advil (ibuprofen).
  • Stomach infection with the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which can either increase or neutralizes stomach acid.
  • A structural abnormality called a hiatal hernia

If you were experiencing acid reflux before undergoing chemotherapy treatment, these potential causes could be why. If any persist or are newly relevant since starting chemo, they can compound the digestive side effects associated with your treatment.

What to Avoid

Whether you're currently undergoing chemotherapy or you've completed your treatment and are experiencing acid reflux, it's a good idea to avoid the following to lessen the likelihood of experiencing discomfort.

  • Acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus fruits
  • Caffeinated and/or carbonated drinks like soda, coffee, and te
  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Fatty or spicy foods
  • Large meals
  • Lying down right after a meal: be sure to prop your head up in bed or on the couch.
  • Smoking
  • Tight-fitting clothing

If you have special nutrition considerations as a result of your chemotherapy treatment, talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to ensure you're getting the right nutrients and enough calories.

Treatments and Special Considerations

Taking digestive enzymes and increasing stomach acid with betaine hydrochloric acid (HCL) tablets found at health food stores may be all that's needed to relieve acid reflux for some healthy individuals.

However, special considerations should be taken for those undergoing chemotherapy treatment due to related increased digestive sensitivity.

Other typical courses of treatment for acid reflux may include OTC or prescription acid-neutralizing or acid-blocking medications. Some common medications for acid reflux include:

  • Antacids like Tums, Rolaids, and Mylanta
  • H2 blockers like Pepcid Complete or Pepcid AC (famotidine), Tagamet HB (cimetidine), and Axid AR (nizatidine)
  • Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Nexium 24h (esomeprazole), Prilosec (omeprazole), Prevacid 24h (lansoprazole), and Zegerid (omeprazole and sodium bicarbonate)

Antacids

Antacids function by neutralizing stomach acid. Despite the relative safety of their ingredients, antacids should not be taken in excess of the dosing recommendations on the label or with certain types of chemotherapy due to possible neutralizing effects on chemotherapy and other drug interactions.

Long-term use can result in potential adverse health outcomes.

PPIs and H2 blockers

PPIs and H2 blockers work by decreasing the stomach's production of acid. Special considerations should be heeded for people undergoing chemotherapy who may take these medications.

One study showed an increased survival rate for patients with a certain type of head and neck cancer who take PPIs and H2 blockers.

Another study showed a decrease in survival rate for people with gastroesophageal cancer when taking PPIs and potentially H2 blockers because of the medicine's neutralizing effects on certain types of chemotherapy.

PPIs and H2 blockers should only be used for a short time in healthy individuals, and presumably also in people undergoing chemo unless otherwise directed by a healthcare provider.

Side effects of prolonged use may include cancer, osteoporosis, decreased stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), reduced nutrient absorption (malabsorption), increased risk of infection, as well as an increased risk of dementia, kidney disease, and death.

Acid reflux drugs come with their own risks and possible interactions with certain types of chemotherapy and other prescription medications. Always talk to your healthcare provider about all of the medications you're taking during chemotherapy and discuss any new medications before starting them.

Summary

Chemotherapy can cause a variety of different side effects, including acid reflux. When the cells in your stomach lining are damaged by the chemotherapy drugs, stomach acid can flow into the esophagus. Lifestyle and diet changes, as well as various medications (both OTC and prescription) can help. If you experience acid reflux during or after chemo, let your treatment team know - there are treatments available that can reduce symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Chemotherapy is not easy. Feeling sick and fatigued is not uncommon. Acid reflux can only add to this, but it may not be something you just have to live with.

Mention your symptoms to your healthcare providers and work together to find strategies that can help prevent episodes as you undergo and look back on cancer treatment.

A licensed nutritionist knowledgeable about chemotherapy and digestive disorders can help you tailor your diet to meet all of your health needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is burping a side effect of chemotherapy?

    If you're having digestion issues from chemotherapy, sometimes burping can be a side effect. Chemo can sometimes cause gas, and burping can be a symptom of that.

  • Can you take Pepto-Bismol on chemo?

    Antacids should be used sparingly while on chemo because they can further irritate the stomach, and depending on what chemotherapy drug you are on, they may need to be avoided completely because they can interfere with the chemotherapy drugs. Ask your chemotherapy treatment team what you are allowed to take before taking any OTC or prescription medication.

  • What foods reduce side effects of chemotherapy?

    While no food is a miracle food that will get rid of every side effect, some foods can reduce side effects of chemo like excess acid, stomach upset, fatigue, or nausea. Foods that can help can include: oatmeal or cream of wheat, soups, plain pasta or rice, mashed potatoes, toast, natural pretzels, Saltine crackers, popsicles, frozen fruit bars, skinned broiled/baked chicken, applesauce, and pudding.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
Originally written by Lisa Fayed